Tag Archives: teaching

Hamadryas and Pangolins and Mastodons, oh my!

As mentioned in my very first blog post, one of the reasons I started with this endeavor is that I have a lifelong love of learning.  Education is an ongoing process, and knowledge, whether it is put to practical use or sought simply to satisfy personal curiosity, is a fantastic thing.  Imagine my excitement, therefore, when I learned of the 2014 Mammal March Madness competition run by Dr. Katie Hinde, an assistant professor of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University.

Picture adapted from art by Tracy A. Heath, Matt Martyniuk, Sarah Werning, via Phylopic! As seen on the blog Mammals Suck…Milk!

This is my kind of pedagogy!

The competition first caught my attention, I must admit, simply because of its enthusiastic mention of mammals (note the exclamation point in the title of her blog post).  As I’ve said before, I have a rather large soft spot for animals, and am easily persuaded to investigate stories or headlines that promise some kind of faunal component.  The more I thought about it, though, the more I began to admire the ingenuity of this exercise.  Here’s why:

1. It brings science to the masses, and makes it fun.

The NCAA March Madness tournament is ubiquitous at this time of year, and the popularity of bracket competitions is continuing to increase.  ESPN even has its own “resident bracketologist,” which at first glance sounds like a job title as realistic as “space smuggler.”

Although it turns out space smugglers are not only real, but fairly common.

Taking advantage of the pervasiveness of this cultural phenomenon to educate people about science is brilliant.  It not only puts the lesson in a familiar context, but appeals to people’s natural competitive instincts by turning it into a game. And for those like me, who are already interested in science but not well versed in basketball, it provides a different kind of learning opportunity: I now understand the nature of “seeds” and know how to fill out a bracket.

2. It only looks simple.

You may be thinking, “If I want to play I just need to look at the bracket and pick some winners, right?”  Technically you’re correct, but as with the NCAA bracket your chances of winning are much better if you make educated picks.  And in this case, that means you need to know not only what an animal is (Hinde’s bracket, as seen below, has an entire division entitled “The Who in the What Now” that is populated by little-known species), but where it lives and how it lives.  

Hamadryas Baboon. Image from Arkive.org.

Pangolin. Image from Arkive.org.

Mastodon. Image from National Geographic.

A laundry list of questions quickly emerges:  How big is it?  How fast is it?  What kind of “weaponry” or defenses does it have?  Does it live by itself or in a group?  To make things even more exciting, the simulated battles in the early rounds of competition take place in the natural habitat of the higher-ranked seed — Hinde calls it the “home court advantage” — but battle locations are randomized at the level of the Elite Eight and beyond.  Could a pack of hyenas triumph over an orca?  Probably, if the battle were to take place on land!

Even with my more-extensive-than-average background in biology, I found myself diving into Wikipedia articles and professional journals to find the information necessary to assess each species and select winners.  Among other things, I’ve learned in the past week that Hamadryas baboons can amass in troops as large as 800 individuals, that the bowhead whale has a layer of blubber that can be 17-19 inches thick, and that, despite its name, the godzilla platypus (which lived 5-15 million years ago) is only twice as large as a modern-day platypus.

Like this.  But 3 feet long!  Image from National Geographic.

3.  It’s memorable.  

I mean this in a dual sense.  First, because it’s happening outside the classroom, the learning that occurs during the Mammal March Madness tournament is likely to be contextualized differently than information read from an assigned textbook.  And while it’s difficult to say whether any knowledge about animals that’s gained through participation in the MMM bracket game will be more likely to be retained due to its association with a cultural touchstone, it’s a form of education that I wholeheartedly endorse (see: my goal to someday teach a Primates & Pop Culture class).

Second, the game itself is memorable.  This may be an especially important factor for kids, or those who are kids at heart: you play, you learn, and then you will want to play again (and learn about a new set of mammals) next year.  It’s the circle of life learning!


The Mammal March Madness tournament is now underway, and you can follow #2014MMM on Twitter to keep track of all the live action.  I have the Saber-toothed Cat going all the way, but anything can happen in this mammal-eat-mammal world!

The Saber-toothed Cat. 850 pounds. 12-inch canines. Good luck.

Pleasing all of the people all of the time

In case you didn’t already know this……..you can’t.

If you don’t believe me, try teaching a class to a group of college students.  I’ve been instructing at the university level for 6 or 7 years now, and I like to think that as a professor I always make a sincere effort to master the subject material I am teaching and present it in as engaging a way as possible.  Being not too far removed from the classroom experience myself, I remember all too well the boredom and frustration that can accompany a poorly structured syllabus or a lecture by a professor who is clearly  “phoning it in,” and I strive to avoid provoking that reaction among my students: my PowerPoint slides are peppered with photographs and cartoons, I tell jokes and anecdotes, I show movies and plan field trips….Really, I’m on the verge of becoming a performing monkey myself.

I have not resorted to costumes and pageantry. Yet.

And yet, each semester when I receive course evaluations, I find myself faced with contradictory student opinions about the degree of success with which I have designed and executed a class.  A few examples will help illustrate:

No matter the subject material of a class, exam format is consistently one of the biggest “issues” that arises on evaluations.  In general, my rule of thumb is to use multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank style questions when I teach an introductory course, and to ask short answer/essay questions for more upper level classes.  I think this makes sense given the breadth and depth of material taught in different courses.  But — surprise, surprise — students don’t always agree.  Some adore multiple choice, while others deem it confusing or wholly unfair.  Similarly, some students relish the opportunity to spew any tangential facts they can possibly think of onto the pages of a blue book (ideally in barely legible penmanship), while others panic at the sight of a blank page.  Perhaps these test-taking anxieties are the result of students having different “learning styles”, but they don’t seem to realize when they comment about exam formats on evaluations that (1) nobody gives professors individual dossiers with this information, and (2) it wouldn’t matter.  The reality of the situation is that throughout their academic career, students will face a variety of  assessment methods, not all of which are tailored to their individual strengths.  In other words, you can’t always get what you want.  Call it the Mick Jagger approach to education.

Pictured: Pedagogic Genius

I suppose my frame of mind is a bit biased, but if a professor told me that she was going to cancel class one week during the semester so that everyone could instead take a trip to the zoo on the weekend, I would be thrilled.  Honestly, who prefers sitting in a classroom for a 3-hour lecture about primate behavior to watching juvenile gorillas wrestle?

I mean, come on.

I mean, come on.

Actually, to be honest, most students seem to enjoy the zoo.  The behavioral observation assignment that I ask them to do is not difficult, and for many of them it is the first time since childhood that they have visited a zoo and seen exotic animals up close.  But there are always one or two critics who use the evaluation form to complain about the cost of the field trip [Really?  The $16.00 zoo admission is an undue strain for a class in which I don’t require you to purchase a textbook?] or question its purpose.  If I knew who these students were, I might be tempted to make them wear “Debbie Downer” name tags at the zoo.

Writing assignments are also frequent fodder for evaluation comments.  Now, it’s no surprise that most students aren’t crazy about having to write term papers [Newsflash! — Most professors aren’t crazy about grading them, either!].  That’s why, this past spring semester, I tried to change things up a little for the students in my mid-level Human Population Biology class.  Instead of a traditional “research” paper, I asked each student to write a simple grant proposal for a hypothetical research project.  I thought this might be a more interesting assignment for them, and potentially a more useful one in the long-term if any of them had intentions of pursuing a graduate degree.  And because I knew that most of them would not have written anything of this sort previously, I provided them with detailed guidelines about appropriate format and content, as well as a copy of the rubric I would use to grade the assignment.  So imagine my surprise when I discovered, reading the course evaluations, not only that opinions were split about whether students liked the assignment (again, see the title of this post), but also that many of the faultfinders whined that they didn’t know what was expected of them in order to do well on it.  Here I take umbrage!  It’s one thing to simply dislike the work, but don’t claim ignorance when I go out of my way to spell out requirements.   That’s just plain lazy.

“I wish there had been more in-class discussion.”

This is possibly the most maddening comment that a student can write on an evaluation of one of my courses.  I like student discussion.  I try to encourage student discussion by pausing frequently for questions and highlighting topical news stories.  But more often than not, I find that trying to generate student discussion is like trying to get a response from, well…..


Seriously.  Have you ever posed a question to a roomful of people only to be confronted with a sea of blank faces and utter silence?  How is it possible that someone who regularly participates in this ritual during the semester can later decry the lack of voluntary verbosity?  If you want there to be student discussion, TALK!

***pause for deep breath ***

I like teaching.  And, despite my bellyaching, my course evaluations tend to suggest that my students think I’m good at it.  But wouldn’t it be nice to be able to find a way to please everyone?

Although if I’m making idle wishes, wouldn’t it be nice to win a MacArthur Genius Grant and take a round-the-world cruise?  Evaluation: great idea!

The Basics

If I had to choose three adjectives to describe Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, they would be:

1. Elegant
2. Powerful
3. Simple

Yes, simple.  Although evolutionary biologists now know that forces other than natural selection (e.g. genetic drift and gene flow) can cause populations to evolve, Darwin’s theory still provides the basic framework for understanding the history of life, and explains much of the variation we see on our planet.  And it does it with just three premises (hence my simplicity claim).  Any student who passes through my Introductory Biological Anthropology course can recite them for you:

1. Individuals in a population vary
2. Variation is heritable
3. Because of this variation, certain individuals are able to survive and reproduce more successfully in a given environment than others.

That’s it.  Those three premises are all that is required to understand the idea of evolution by natural selection.  So why is there so much confusion and misunderstanding surrounding Darwin’s ideas?  Why, during last year’s celebration of the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, did a poll reveal that only 4 out of 10 Americans believe in evolution?

The ongoing evolution vs. creationism/intelligent design battle aptly demonstrates that religious background plays a significant role.  But in some cases, people may not believe in evolution by natural selection because they don’t understand the process.  Many misconceptions abound simply because people haven’t been properly introduced to the Darwinian basics.

So in the spirit of defending evolutionary thought, I want to share a few  clarifications that I have found useful when introducing students to Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.

  • The third premise — that because traits vary, certain individuals are able to survive and reproduce more successfully in a given environment than others — is often abbreviated to “Survival of the Fittest.”  But this shorthand only works if people understand that the term “fit” is relative.  Individuals that are highly fit (i.e. able to produce many offspring) under one set of environmental circumstances are not necessarily the “fittest” under different conditions.  In other words, changes in an organism’s habitat can turn underdogs into winners and vice versa.  This is key.  Remember it.
  • Natural selection and Evolution are not terms that can be interchanged at will.  As I tell my students, natural selection is a process that affects individuals, but it is populations that evolve as fitter individuals reproduce more successfully and pass on beneficial trait variations.
    A quick example: Among a population of tree frogs, bright red individuals who are more visible against the green backdrop may be subject to higher predation and die before they reproduce.  As a result, fewer “red color” genes will be passed on to subsequent generations and over time the population will have higher frequencies of the beneficial-for-camouflage “green color” genes.
  • Humans (aka Homo sapiens) are not the pinnacle of evolution.  In fact, there is no pinnacle of evolution, because natural selection is not a unidirectional process in which organisms become “better” in an absolute sense (see the above point about underdogs).  Humans are simply the most recently evolved members of one particular primate lineage.  And, despite what many of my students think, most experts agree that we are still evolving.

That’s the end of today’s lesson.  Now go and explain these premises to everyone you know and maybe, just maybe, we can top 50% in the next Gallup poll.